Temple Owls

Fran Dunphy enjoys return to Palestra

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Fran Dunphy enjoys return to Palestra

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Considering how much he loves Fran Dunphy, Steve Donahue may be a biased source.

But the Penn head coach made a bold prediction about Dunphy’s Temple squad after the Owls showed a ton of grit in a 60-51 win over the host Quakers Saturday afternoon at the Palestra (see observations).

“I think they’re an NCAA team,” Donahue said. “They just have to try to figure out consistency. When they play well, that’s as good a team as there is. They got better today and they figured out a way to win.”

Temple players agreed that Saturday’s victory — in which the Owls blew a 12-point lead, fell behind by three, and then scored the game’s final 12 points to prevail — could prove to be an important milestone in an up-and-down season.

“Big 5 games are always gonna be tough,” said senior Obi Enechionyia, who scored 10 of his team-high 15 points in the second half. “But we wanted it more, I think. And it showed in the end.”

Enechionyia admitted he didn’t think the 2017-18 campaign would go as it has for the Owls (10-9), who began the season with huge wins over Top 25 teams Auburn and Clemson before starting to sputter and losing six of their last eight heading into Saturday’s contest.

But the senior forward compared this team to the 2015-16 squad, which also hovered around the .500 mark before ending the season strong and making the NCAA Tournament as a 21-win squad.

“I see nothing different from this team,” Enechionyia said.

“I think we all thought it would be better than this. But after struggling a little bit, we have to get back to how we played in the beginning. We have a lot of games to go and I think we can show we’re the same team we were in the beginning of the season.”

It will certainly be an uphill climb for the Owls, who hit the road to face No. 12 Cincinnati on Wednesday and still have two games on the schedule against No. 7 Wichita State. But if the Owls can go 8-3 or 9-2 the rest of the way, that could at least put them onto the bubble heading into the American Athletic Conference tournament.

If nothing else, they’ll be a seasoned team in February and March, as almost all of their recent games have come down to the final minute — Saturday’s win proving to be no exception.

“It’s just who we are,” Enechionyia said. “For some reason, we let teams back, which we shouldn’t do. But at the end of the day, a win is a win. I’m happy with how we played, even though we let them back in.”

Along with Enechionyia, fellow upperclassmen Shizz Alston and Josh Brown also made big plays down the stretch with Alston kickstarting the 12-0 run to end the game with a game-tying three pointer and Brown hitting a big three of his own in between that shot and a tough runner from freshman J.P. Moorman III.

Afterwards, Alston, a Philadelphia native, said he felt like he “needed to make a play.”

“It was amazing,” Alston said. “Every time there’s a game here, it feels like something special happens. Today was no different.”

Indeed, Saturday’s game was a nice place for Temple to show its character as the Palestra was filled even in the corners, with fans from both teams evenly represented.

The size of the crowd and the atmosphere was not lost on Dunphy, who spent 17 seasons in the historic building as Penn’s head coach and has lost only one game to the Quakers since leaving Penn for Temple in 2006.

“It’s different today [coming back] than it was 12 years ago — 12 years ago it was surreal, daunting, crazy,” Dunphy said. “It gets easier every year. It’s still a special place, special university. And while you can change the lighting or the floor, it’s always gonna be the Palestra. It’s still a spectacular place.”

Did it feel as loud as Big 5 games used to be?

“It was today,” Dunphy said. “It was loud as hell. We were in the huddle one time and someone made a halfcourt shot or something? Pretty cool. I’d like to see film of that.”

In addition to a Penn student making a halfcourt shot during one break in the action, the Penn Band played the Eagles fight song at on point with more than 7,000 fans then breaking into an E-A-G-L-E-S chant a day before the NFC Championship Game at Lincoln Financial Field.

Just like Dunphy noticed the student halfcourt shot, Donahue noticed that chant reverberating around the gym.

“This is a unique city,” said Donahue, who previously coached at Cornell and Boston College after Dunphy gave him his college start as a Penn assistant throughout the 1990s. “That doesn’t happen, this much interest. College basketball in this city is passionate, it’s huge, it’s a fun place to coach.

“You get an Eagles chant in the middle of the game, which gets you all fired up. They’re not doing that in Boston for the Patriots, trust me.”

Temple's NCAA tourney hopes take a crushing blow

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Temple's NCAA tourney hopes take a crushing blow

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Whether it was simply coachspeak or the dawning realization that his team now has only one entry point into the NCAA Tournament, Fran Dunphy made a short but forceful declaration following Temple’s 80-59 loss to Houston on Sunday.

“We’ve got to win every game we play from here on in,” the Owls head coach said. “That’s the only thing we can do.”

Indeed, at this point, anything short of a perfect run through the American Athletic Conference tournament — which begins on March 8th following the Owls’ final three regular-season games — will likely relegate Temple to the NIT or worse.

The Cougars (21-5, 11-3 American) made sure of that by completely dominating the Owls (15-12 7-8) on their home court to suck the life out of the Liacouras Center — and Temple’s fading NCAA hopes.

“We never let them breathe,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. 

Houston has now won five straight to join nationally ranked Wichita State and Cincinnati atop the conference, making it increasingly likely that only those three squads will represent the American at the Big Dance. 

Temple, despite a conference record hovering around .500, had been making a nice push to join the party thanks to a potent strength of schedule, a couple of impressive November non-conference wins over Auburn and Clemson, and a recent five-game winning streak that included an overtime upset of Wichita State.

But after losing to the Shockers in a rematch on Thursday, the Owls likely needed to win out and then win at least a couple of more games in the AAC tournament to have a realistic shot of an at-large NCAA berth.

Houston ruined that by scoring the game’s first 15 points and never taking its foot off the gas from there en route to Sunday’s lopsided win.

“I think we came out really flat,” said Nate Pierre-Louis, who led the Owls with 13 points after watching the poor start from the bench. “I think we came out underestimating them. And they came out guns blazing, making everything. If we want to push forward, we can’t start out like that at all.”

Dunphy, who could be feeling some heat if Temple misses the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years, had a hard time explaining what went wrong. But he didn’t make excuses, whether it was the team having trouble with its charter flight leaving Wichita (“You figure it out, suck it up and do a better job”) or bouncing back in general from an emotionally draining game there (“[Houston] had a great win at home against Cincinnati, so they were probably more susceptible to a letdown than we were”).

He also didn’t hide from the fact that there wasn’t enough effort from his players.

“We were a step slow all day long,” Dunphy said. “We had decent rest, we worked hard enough, [assistant coach] Chris Clark had us very well prepared for the x-and-o piece. We were just slow all day.”

In no way was that more magnified than in Houston’s 53-22 rebounding advantage, including a 17-5 edge on the offensive end. The Cougars' 53 rebounds matched a Liacouras Center record.

When asked about that, Sampson pointed out that he recently learned his team was among the shortest in the nation. Clearly, though, their hunger makes up for that fact.

“I guess we’re short but it never crossed my mind that it mattered,” the Houston coach said. “What’s that old saying? If size were important, what happened to the dinosaurs?”

Dunphy had a less philosophical (and probably more scientifically accurate) approach to the rebounding discrepancy.

“We were just not disciplined enough on the rebounding side,” the Temple coach said. “They played very well, and obviously we didn’t play very well at all.”

Sadly for Temple fans, the Owls have had a few games this year when they didn’t play well. They’ve also had games where they’ve looked like world-beaters, making this a particularly maddening season.

So whether the Owls close the regular season strong and make a run in the conference tournament or crash out in the first round is anyone’s guess, really. But even after Sunday’s brutal loss, sophomore Quinton Rose forecasted some optimism as the up-and-down 2017-18 campaign winds down.

“I think we’re at our best when we have our backs against the wall,” said Rose, who scored 13 on Sunday. “So I have no doubt we can make a good run."

Temple flops in biggest game of season

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Temple flops in biggest game of season

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In its biggest game of the season, Temple had its biggest flop.

With their NCAA Tournament at-large hopes dangling over a precipice, the Owls were smoked by visiting Houston, 80-59, on Sunday at the Liacouras Center.

Quinton Rose and Nate Pierre-Louis scored 13 points apiece for Temple (15-12, 7-8 American), which had won seven of its last nine coming in with the only losses in that stretch to nationally ranked teams (Wichita State, Cincinnati) on the road.

Corey Davis Jr. had a game-high 20 points for Houston (21-5, 11-3), which has now won five straight, including a massive win over No. 5 Cincinnati on Thursday, and is challenging the Bearcats and Shockers for the league title.

• It sounds cliché but Houston just seemed to want it more, outhustling Temple to loose balls and dominating on the glass by a ridiculous 53-22 margin. Not surprisingly, there were smatterings of boos from Temple fans when the final horn sounded.

• Considering the urgency of the game, Temple was very flat from the start with Houston’s Davis hitting two tough three-pointers to spark an 8-0 start for the visitors.

• The Cougars built their lead to 15-0 as Temple fans, standing until the Owls scored their first basket, grew impatient and implored head coach Fran Dunphy to change the lineup.

• Finally, Temple got on the scoreboard when Obi Enechionyia threw down a big dunk with 13:36 left in the first half. But fittingly, Davis hit a jumper just moments later and the red-hot Cougars kept their foot on the gas to increase their lead to 34-11 with 7:30 left.

• Houston led by a staggering 24 points at the final media timeout of the first half and took a 21-point lead into halftime after an Enechionyia three-pointer in the final seconds.

• Temple shot 31 percent in the first half, and it seemed even uglier with several of the Owls’ shots missing the rim entirely.

• The biggest first-half difference was rebounding as Houston held a 31-9 advantage and an 11-1 edge on the offensive boards. On one especially excruciating possession for Temple, Houston got a couple of offensive rebounds before Davis drilled a three right in front of the Temple bench.

• With Temple showing a little more life to start the second half, the Cougars promptly sucked it back out of them with star senior Rob Gray hitting a big three to put them up 47-24 with 16 minutes left.

• With 13 minutes left, the Cougars had doubled up Temple’s score (54-27), and then went ahead 59-27 on Davis’ sixth three-pointer of the game. Temple fans had very little cheer for from there. Houston’s a good team but it’s not easy to explain how the surging Owls could lose a game this badly to anyone at home.

• Houston actually had far more turnovers than Temple, 17-10.

• Temple lost at Houston, 76-73, back in December, and is now 2-7 all-time vs. the Cougars, including a 1-4 mark in Philadelphia.

• Houston is chasing just its second NCAA Tournament berth since 1992 and its first since 2010. The Owls, meanwhile, are in danger of missing two straight Big Dances for just the second time since Fran Dunphy took over in 2006. Thanks in large part to a great strength of schedule and their recent hot streak, the Owls were on Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four Out” in ESPN’s bracketology but this loss — and a sub-.500 conference mark — will certainly drop them even further off the bubble.

• The best celebration of the day came in honor of Hooter the Owl’s birthday, with mascots from around the city coming to the Liacouras Center to pay their respects. But those vibes didn’t extend to the game as Temple dropped to 12-1 all-time on its mascot’s birthday.

• Temple plays its final home game next Sunday vs. UCF before closing the regular season with road games at UConn and Tulsa. But even if they win out, the Owls still likely need to win the American Athletic Conference tournament to get into the NCAAs.